What is a Fundamentalist anyway?

Another good post from my friend Roger Olson:

There is an ethos, or at least environment, about fundamentalism that breaks somewhat from a theological sketch of it (as Roger provides here), and that ethos is what I call “zealotry” (here and here). That is, a desire to be so committed to God that one constructs ideas and rules and other elements that go beyond the Bible but are taken to be critical elements of the true faith. So I would add “zealotry” to Roger’s list of the criteria of fundamentalism, and perhaps he’d say it is woven into his list.

So here are my (notice I say “my!”) criteria:

1) If a person (or organization) is a theologically conservative Protestant Christian (by which I mean embracing classically orthodox Protestant doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, etc.) and on principle declines to have Christian fellowship with anyone who has Christian fellowship with persons of questionable doctrinal commitments (“secondary separation”), he is probably a fundamentalist.

2) If a person (I’ll skip the rest that came before the “and” in the first criterion above from here on) believes that belief in biblical inerrancy in all matters, including history and cosmology, is a cardinal tenet of Christian faith, she is probably a fundamentalist.

3) If a person believes that the Authorized Version (KJV) is the only acceptable English translation of the Bible, he is probably a fundamentalist.

4) If a person believes premillennial eschatology (and especially “pre-tribulational rapturism”) and young earth creationism are crucial Christian beliefs, “fundamentals of the faith,” she is probably a fundamentalist.

5) If a person believes that America is “God’s nation” in an exclusive way (of other nations, tribes and peoples) such that America is, as a nation, part of God’s salvation history and plan of redemption, he is probably a fundamentalist. (In Great Britain this would apply to belief about that nation such as “British Israelism.”)

6) If a person believes that the Bible ought to be the basis of an entire educational curriculum, including studies of science, philosophy, psychology, etc., she is probably a fundamentalist. (To put this negatively: If a person does not believe truth can exist outside a Bible-based research project, that “all truth is God’s truth,” even that discovered by non-Christians, she is probably a fundamentalist.)

7) If a person believes that Catholics cannot be Christians and/or Calvinists or non-Calvinists cannot be evangelicals (etc.), he is probably, at least in some respects, a fundamentalist.

These are not absolute litmus tests. It’s theoretically possible that a person might hold most of these beliefs and, for some unforeseen reason (a fluke) not be a fundamentalist. Normally, a fundamentalist embraces all or most of these beliefs. Holding one alone does not make him or her a fundamentalist.  As I explain below, “fundamentalism” is an ideal type, not an all-or-nothing template. And, these (above) are my criteria, based on years of studying fundamentalism.

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  • PGM

    I’d add a few more, but I am not sure how to define them as acutely as you have above, Scott:

    a) If a person believes implicitly or explicitly that the Bible is effectively part of the Trinity, as the written version of the Logos, i.e. that Jesus and the Bible are One, then they are probably a fundamentalist.

    b) If a person believes that Jesus could not while on earth before his resurrection make an error, such as drop a ball, or lose concentration, or in any way experience human limitation, that person is probably a fundamentalist.

    I would argue that these people are actually Puritan Docetists 😉

    c) If a person believes that Jesus knew all things at all times, including complete foreknowledge, they are probably a fundamentalist.

    I would also add to to your 3, d)* If a person believes that the Bible is only inspired in any particular manuscripts in the, such as the Textus Receptus for the NT or Masoretic for the OT, they are probably a fundamentalist.

    *I say this because some of the more insane assertions of Chuck Missler and his ilk.

  • John M.

    PGM 1 – I understand that a, b, and c are believed implicitly by many rank and file people, but I would say that if someone explicitly states those beliefs after theological reflection that they have strayed from theological orthodoxy, ie the reality of the Logos becoming fully human.

  • If someone believes the Ryrie footnotes in their Study Bible are equally inspired, you just might be a fundamentalist (please read this in a Jeff Foxworthy accent).

  • Scot,

    What a list – I would add;

    If a person believes that a penal code should be the commensurate response to personal, but not corporate or systemic sin, they are a fundamentalist

    If a person is zealous for theological positions and convictions over and against zeal for unity with other Christians, they are a fundamentalist. (Saul’s zeal vs. Paul’s zeal)

  • Some of these, like secondary separation and KJV only, I would definitely classify as beliefs typical of fundamentalists. A number of the others though, such as Americanism, YEC, and and premillenial, pre-tribulational rapturism seem to me to be reflective of the beliefs of much of mainstream evangelicalism as much as they do with fundamentalism.

    I would add to the list:

    –If a person thinks that all or most manifestations of contemporary art and culture (ie jazz and rock music, movies, etc.) are intrinsically evil and that those who participate in enjoying or making them are spiritually suspect at best, that person is probably a fundamentalist.

    — If a person thinks that women who wear pants of any kind, men who have longer hair, people who have tattoos or body-piercings are an abomination to God or are in sin, that person is very likely a fundamentalist.

    Those are couple that come to mind.

  • Dwight Stinnett

    Good list. But is “fundamentalism” only a conservative Christian trait???? What about Islamic fundamentalists? I think I have run across a few Liberal fundamentalists!!! Also, in reading about the worldwide economic collapse post 2008 found an interesting observation of “market fundamentalism.”

  • scotmcknight

    Dwight, I’ve thought about this some. Roger’s list is about an American religious phenomenon, or a theological phenomenon largely in America, and to the degree that his list is about that fundamentalism is an issue of the conservative, not liberal, spectrum. Islam, as Martin Marty’s series revealed, and other religions show similar features.

  • AHH

    A generally good list, but it seems to be mixing in some things (KJV-only) that are little fringes with others that are much stronger markers of almost all fundamentalists.

    I like a simpler list, seeing two main markers of modern (Christian) fundamentalism:
    1) Extreme Biblicism, often manifested as not only holding the inerrancy doctrine but treating it as essential, and/or putting the Bible on the same level as the Trinity. Often along with that is a hermeneutic where God is not allowed to use non-historical stories (for example in Job, Jonah, Genesis 1) to communicate truth.
    2) A strong “us versus them” attitude, where “them” includes not only the secular world but also other Christians who are not fundamentalists (or even a different flavor of fundamentalist).

  • phil_style

    For me, the term is difficult to deal with.

    There are Fundamentalists, and fundamentalists (capital F, or f).

    Fundamentalists would be those who self-identify with the term. Is is a self-imposed identifier that is designed to separate them out from other Christians. These people tend to be the ones who are most outspoken with respect to purity-type issues regarding theology and behavior. i think that even within this group, there is, in fact, a wide range of theologies, anthropologies and behaviors which are present.

    The second group are “fundamentalists”. This term is applied to almost anyone, by almost anyone. I would be called a “fundamentalist” by others, depending on how much exposure they have had to the Fundamentalist identified above. For example, simply by affirming the resurrection, I could be labelled a fundamentalist, because I would hold to a specific faith position as a fundamental tenet. In someone else’s eyes, this marks me out as a fundamentalist with respect to that position.

  • Greg D

    While I believe the stereotypical fundamentalist churches/believers exist, I believe they are being replaced by today’s “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd. Much of those in this camp hold strongly to an assortment of beliefs that very closely align with the list made by Olsen but with slight deviation. For example, instead of the KJV-only fundies, they are now the ESV-only fundies. But, everything else, from what I have experienced is the same on this list with the YRR crowd. I’m convinced the old fundamenatlists are on their way out, and the new ones, by way of the YRR, are on their way in.

  • Rick

    Greg D-

    “I believe they are being replaced by today’s “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd.”

    Unfortunately there are elements of that group that are going that route. The interesting part is that those elements are often going against how the leaders of their churches (Reformed leaders) think/feel about such issues.

  • Thank you Jordan at #3. When I was reading through these and thought “this sounds like Foxworthy,” I wondered if I was the only one (I didn’t get this vibe from Olsen’s post about liberalism. What does THAT say about me?”).

  • Scot McKnight

    Roger Olson is one of our finest “definers” of such thing because he relentlessly presses us to origins. For Roger, a fundamentalist has to be connected to the rise of the Fundamentalists about 90 years ago, and only out of that movement does the word make best sense.

    It is easy to swat at folks with the label “fundamentalist” but that is more or less jargon for “I don’t like that group.”

    The NeoPuritans, or NeoReformed/Calvinists, have some tone similarities but they are only fundamentalists to the degree they claim connection to that movement. That they think NeoEvangelicalism of CT, Billy Graham, and John Stott was a compromise, they show signs of returning to the fundamentalism that gave rise to Carl Henry’s famous call. There are indeed elements of fundamentalism, but it seems wiser to me to see it as a new movement that emerges out of NeoEvangelicalism, with strong streams flowing from Puritanism and Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in particular, with routine connections to the Reformers (sometimes quite selectively).

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Of course, you could go and read the satirical site run by an ex-fundy, for ex-fundies http://www.stufffundieslike.com .

    Note, I said satirical. But it often cuts to the very bone, as good satire does.

  • I actually read all 5 volumes of ” The Fundamentals” so odd how many veins of protestant representation was included, even a Canadian! 🙂 Most self proclaiming fundamentalists are way narrower than their foundational documents.
    I have observed an interesting parallel up here north of the 49th parallel. When my own “fellowship ” began 60+ years ago as a reaction to liberalism, the last thing any of the founders wanted to have weighing them down was a “denomination” . However the cooperative ministry efforts they engaged in as a designated “fellowship” of autonomous local churches was remarkable. Nowadays we see ourselves as a denomination but getting any traction on cooperative efforts. I can’t make sense of it, people fighting so hard for autonomy of individual churches cooperating together while now everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Perhaps the present arms length attitude it is due to a lack of uniformity once autonomous church fellowships turned freedom inward.
    I have a feeling http://www.stufffundieslike.com is going to cost me an afternoon of productivity !

  • Nick

    “It is easy to swat at folks with the label “fundamentalist” but that is more or less jargon for “I don’t like that group.”

    As has happened already a number of times in the comments here! 🙂

  • phil_style

    I think in the UK and Europe the term has slightly different nuance.

    It’s my opinion that, in the UK, you could (without breaking any rules of common usage) apply the term fundamentalist to anyone who held to two or more of the following;
    1. Pro-life
    2. believed in the literal resurrection
    3. thought marriage was universally “intended” only for a male and a female
    4. Believed the bible was the “word of God” (even without going so far as infallible)
    5. Believed that God heals people of illness

  • I posted here about how the “zealotry” approach has actually become THE most common understanding of fundamentalism:

  • Matt

    If you seem more excited about your “system” than you do about being a follower of Jesus, you might be a fundamentalist.

  • Marshall

    Roger’s follow-up post “Why I Am Not a Fundamentalist (or Conservative Evangelical)” is also interesting … at least he doesn’t say Fundies are not Christians! And among those left standing, he has got to be the most open-minded theologian I know about, even willing to look at open theism, postmodernism and so on. But I think he is making a serious error by asserting a “What is Necessary to Believe” list, which seems to me an essentially Foundationalist, or Fundamentalist, stance. Whereas only God is good.
    As I see it, the unavoidable problem with fundamentalism is that we can’t ever get very widespread agreement as to what the correct fundamentals, or foundations, and acrimony tending towards violence ensues, at the expense of Kingdom work … v. Genesis 11.

  • SG

    One trend I’ve noticed among some fundamentalists and conservatives is “love” being defined as telling someone the truth vs. having compassion on them. I actually think both qualify as love but compassion is being left out, even criticized in some camps, rendering their definition of love unbiblical, IMO. Perhaps because compassion, gentleness and graciousness can be associated with weakness there is a fear of them amongst those who greatly value (human) strength.

  • It seems that the term fundamentalismis so laden and seeped with cultural baggage and connotations. Why can’t we just adhere to the original definition, set forth in those series of published pamphlets (circa 1910-1915) titled The Fundamentals?

    1. verbal inerrancy of scripture
    2. divinity of Jesus
    3. virgin birth
    4. substitutionary theory of atonement
    5. physical, bodily return of Jesus

  • Robin


    If we stick to those things we don’t get to use the word as a club with which to bash our particular adversaries. It is more fun if we get to add things we particularly dislike 🙂

  • P.

    I wonder if the word “literal” should be used instead of “inerrant.” I think the Bible is without error, yet does contain symbolism in some areas. I guess I’m so not a fundamentalist.

  • Carol P.

    “If you seem more excited about your “system” than you do about being a follower of Jesus, you might be a fundamentalist.”


    But in all fairness, this could apply to many denominations.

  • Scot McKnight

    I do agree with you that the term would lose its rhetorical, labeling, insulting power, but it is not accurate to reduce the fundamentals to those five elements. Here’s a list of the sorts of things that were in discussion, and for me the anti-criticism issues were quite important as entailments of inerrancy and inspiration. That is, it was thought that if it was inspired, Moses had to write all (or at least almost all) of the Pentateuch.

    As a college student I bought and read and dipped into the whole of the set. I no longer have it, though at times I wish I did.


  • TJJ

    Anti-criticism of almost any kind of the Biblical books, anti-science, US flag in the sanctuary, official picture of white blue eyed Jesus behind pulpit, bad clothes, worse haircuts, anti seminary education, anti secular literature of western civ., anti alcohol, anti spring break in warm places. Yeah, those are some of the things I think of…….sadly.

  • Robin


    I wasn’t trying to attack you. It just made me chuckle that two days ago discussing the definition of a liberal most of your commenters were up in arms decrying the use of labels or pointing out how Olsen was unfair…but when the discussion was fundamentalists everyone is interested in piling on, and multiplying the offenses for which one can be labelled a fundamentalist.

    I thought you were eminently evenhanded, I just don’t think the same is true of your readership.

  • phil_style

    @Robin, but when the discussion was fundamentalists everyone is interested in piling on

    I’ve noticed your sentiment twice on this thread. Nick at comment #16 makes a similar point.

    I think it’s unfair to drop a catch-all bomb like that on such a thread, without identifying specifically which comments/ contributions you are referring to. Perhaps if you identified each speaker you are referring to, you might give these individuals the chance to respond. you might find that the “multiplying the offenses for which one can be labelled a fundamentalist” is, in fact showing how difficult the term is to deal with (a point I try to make in comment 9). Labeling (or appearing to label) everyone or potentially the entire readership as unfair, is unfair. You might find that the readership here agrees with you more than your realise.

  • Robin


    I don’t think it is necessary to single out commenters on this thread only to notice the difference in tone between the liberal and fundamentalist threads. About halfway through the liberal thread the tone gets failrly defensive, decrying the use of labels, etc. There is just a general tone in that thread of “lets tread very lightly here, not be overbroad in categorizing people as liberals, and even if we do so, let’s not use that as a perjorative term.” That is how the thread reads to me.

    That is not how this thread reads to me. I see people immediately wanting to expand Roger’s list, and generally using fundamentalism as a perjorative very freely.

    My issues aren’t specifics so much as tone, which is usually the problem. General deference to those on the left hand side of the spectrum (by the commenters), general antagonism to those on the right.

  • phil_style

    Well I don’t see, or feel this trend at all. In fact the contributors to the first thread (liberals thread) would appear in the majority to be a different set of names to those responding on this thread. In fact, those who appear to have had the greatest issue with the concept of the labelling in the previous thread (i.e. George Elerick, Gary Lyn, Kenton) have not even contributed here on this thread yet. Marshall is the only person I would suggest who was critical of the labelling in the last thread – and who has contributed here in reference to that other thread.
    I count only 8 out of 52 comments in the previous thread which are against the use of “liberal” as a term – these by 5 contributors, only one of which has so far contributed here. On the whole, the vast majority of comment son the liberal thread see value in Olson’s work, and indeed are complimentary regarding the application of the term “liberal” in many respects.

    This is why we must not make broad statements about “the crowd” when we are, in fact, dealing with a different group of individuals.

    For these reasons I reject the notion that most of your commenters were up in arms decrying the use of labels or pointing out how Olsen was unfair. In my opinion, you have grossly misrepresented those who contribute this blog, of whom I am one.

  • Marshall

    I would like to be clear, I don’t object to labeling in the sense of prototypes; that would be to object to human cognition, which is all about manipulation of categories. But because of the diversity of stuff, categories are always arbitrary, fuzzy at the edges, and inclined to morph. Therefore any attempt to describe real-world stuff is indicative rather than definitive. I see Roger’s criteria as defining *himself* as poised between “Fundamentalism(per RO)” and “Liberalism(per RO)”, and all very well. But I reject his assertion that _my_ personal … experienced! … relationship with God as a Christian depends on my aggressive assertion of the factual or empirical nature of events so far removed from the life God has put me into. Those things are a _mystery_.

    It seems to me that the central fact ought to be that God/Jesus is real and present in the world of Now. It seems to me that’s all we can really understand.

  • phil_style

    Thanks for that Marshall.

    In that case I retract me previous second paragraph and replace it with:

    I count only 6 out of 52 comments in the previous thread which are against the use of “liberal” as a term – these by 4 contributors, none of which has so far contributed here. On the whole, the vast majority of comment son the liberal thread see value in Olson’s work, and indeed are complimentary regarding the application of the term “liberal” in many respects.

  • nate s.

    LOL. I LOVE how these read like ‘you might be a redneck’ jokes!